2023 Steelers Season Recall: Tennessee Titans trumped on Thursday Night Football

Steel City Underground presents our 2023 Steelers Recall: A Look Back at Pittsburgh Steelers games and storylines from last season.

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has an outstanding record of wins on his resume during primetime games. During Week 9 on Thursday Night Football, he extended that streak as the Steelers battled for every inch of turf in a 20-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans.

The game was a back-and-forth affair with the Steelers pulling off another upset via a fourth-quarter score and a defensive takeaway to keep pace in the AFC North divisional race, improving their record to 5-3 following a poor showing just days earlier in a home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

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Major changes were in motion in Pittsburgh, as offensive coordinator Matt Canada came down from the booth to call plays on the sideline. The Steelers inserted rookie Broderick Jones into the starting lineup for Thursday’s game but didn’t play him where he was drafted to play. Instead, Mike Tomlin and his staff opted to play the Georgia left tackle over on the right side of the offensive line, benching starter Chukwuma Okorafor. The results were tremendous in more ways than one, including the Steelers giving up zero sacks to their opposition.

The Steelers also made four trips to the redzone in this game, each with drives that were at least ten plays or more. The two longest drives (83 and 94 yards) ended in touchdowns with the other two finishing with field goals.

Despite a few hiccups from individuals on the line, the run blocking opened more holes for both Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. Jaylen Warren led all rushers with 11 carries for 88 yards (8.0 YPC) while Najee Harris added 16 carries for 69 yards (4.3 YPC). Both were season highs for each player.

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The total combined output, along with Calvin Austin’s 10 yards would be 166 rushing yards in this game: 50 more yards rushing than they had in any other game at this point during the 2023 season.

Both running backs also helped out in the passing game. Harris was able to punch into the end zone due to a well-timed block and upfront motion allowed Warren to nearly break out for a touchdown of his own in the game.

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The improved focus on the running game had different impacts on the Steelers passing game, however. Kenny Pickett wasn’t nearly as accurate with his throws in the first half, but improved in the second half and was able to finally get receiver Diontae Johnson his first touchdown reception since 2021: 665 days, dating back to Week 17 of the 2021 regular season. (The pass and catch would ultimately be the game winner as well.)

After putting up 11 catches for 237 yards and a touchdown in his two games before last week, Steelers second-year WR George Pickens dipped to one reception for 22 yards (on a touchdown from QB Mitchell Trubisky) and two catches for minus-one yard against the Titans. (Pickens had an opportunity to add to these totals but failed to keep his feet in bounds for a would-be touchdown against Tennessee.)

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Defensively, Derrick Henry was limited to just 75 yards on 17 carries with the Titans gaining just 105 yards on the ground. Cameron Heyward, Elandon Roberts, and a supporting cast along the defensive front helped keep the Titans from breaking big gains, as Henry’s longest run went for 15 yards even though the big, brushing back was able to punch a short run into the end zone.

Pittsburgh applied pressure all night on Tennessee rookie quarterback Will Levis. If Levis wasn’t being forced to move in the pocket, he was hit or sacked by a defense determined to not let the young signal caller run up the score the way he had against the Atlanta Falcons.

Levis was sacked four times for a loss of 27 yards. Alex Highsmith logged 2.0 sacks and 5 QB hits to T.J. Watt‘s 1.0 sacks and 2 QB hits while Markus Golden added 1.0 sacks and a QB hit. Larry Ogunjobi and Cole Holcomb also earned a QB hit a piece in the game. Levis would follow up a four-touchdown debut prior to this game by going 56.4% on his throws for 264 yards and an interception.

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Unfortunately, this game was also marred by officiating. The referees showed that they still don’t know what a roughing the passer call is in the NFL, tagging Watt for a split-second clean hit on Levis during Tennessee’s first possession in Thursday’s game. That drive would be aided by three more accepted penalties (and another that was declined) in route to a Titan’s field goal.

With the game seemingly over on 4th-and-7 with 53 seconds remaining in the game, the zebras would strike again, extending the Titan’s drive with a non-existent defensive pass interference call against Joey Porter Jr.

While the previous Sunday’s officiating crew was thought to be the worst the Steelers had all season, this group said “hold my beer” with inconsistent calls that often extended drives in critical moments for Pittsburgh’s opponent. The Steelers would finish the day being flagged ten times for 80 total penalty yards, and giving the Titans six first downs via penalty.

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Fortunately, not only did the Steelers strike first in the game, but they struck last when linebacker Kwon Alexander intercepted a potential touchdown throw to allow Pittsburgh’s offense to kneel in victory formation in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter. The Steelers would secure the victory, 20-16 and improve to 5-3 on the season as they took some much needed rest in a mini bye week to prepare for their Week 10 home stand against the Green Bay Packers.

Stay tuned next week as we continue our Recall series by revisiting that game and more throughout the offseason.

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